Monday, April 24, 2006

Sacred authority and theatrics

The late Sheikh Muhammad Al-Ghazali (a real scholar, the da`iya of our time, as Al-Qaradawi is the faqih of our time) made fun of those whom he saw in London wearing clothes made for the desert of Najd, as if religiosity had anything to do with costumes. But those who have attended a number of conferences on Islamic finance have surely seen the increase in theatrics. People who are marketed as "religious scholars" have increasingly been attending conferences wearing their national costumes, which naive Muslims and non-Muslims wrongly associate with piety. Of course, we have seen the same costume-based status in our local mosques, making one wonder: why does a checkered red and white cloth on your head -- with "made in England" printed on it -- make you pious or knowledgeable. King Abdul-Aziz Al-Saud wore that type of head covering while establishing his kingdom, and it has become a national symbol. So, if people wish to wear that national costume for nationalist reasons, there is obviously meaningful symbolism in it. But now we have those national costumes, which do appear exotic in London or Boston, implicitly signaling religious knowledge.

The majority of Muslims cannot read or understand Arabic. So, as someone told me at a conference, as soon as a person in an exotic costume starts to cite Qur'an, Hadith, or even mediocre juristic analysis from eight centuries ago, it sounds like a priest speaking in Latin. It sounds sacredly authoritative.

Never mind that the speaker may have no formal advanced degrees in religious studies, finance, or any relevant field. They can simply cite an unverifiable list of names of "shuyukh" with whom they studied, and without formal degrees, you'll never know whether they ever understood what those shuyukh were saying (or if those shuyukh themselves understood the practical areas about which the self-made expert is supposed to be knowledgeable). Just imagine if a medical doctor performing an open-heart surgery on you had as his credentials the fact that he had sat down -- with many other wanabe doctors -- and listened to other doctors. Here is the recipe:

  • Put on a costume. Even if you traveled in regular western clothes, you need the costume for appearances when you attend the meetings. If you are worried about being seen in the western clothes, you may want to keep the costume on more often.
  • Thicken your accent: it makes you sound more exotic and knowledgeable.
  • Pepper your talk with superfluous Arabic words, for which perfectly good English terms exist.
  • Try not to mix with the masses: Always walk with an entourage. Instead of going to the microphone like others, ask for the microphone to be brought to you, etc.
  • Make sure to use at least one dirty joke in each appearance: it helps break the ice and make you seem more exotic and learned.

Interestingly, some of the real scholars, like Dr. Hammad, actually come to conferences in a suit and tie -- even when the conference is held in Dubai or elsewhere in the Arab world. I guess they have legitimate degrees and do not need costumes.

But that doesn't sell as well to the second-rate bankers looking for a distinctive brandname that will allow them to get as rich as the better bankers. It doesn't sell well because most Muslims suffer from the need for authoritative figures who can claim possession of sacred knowledge. So, you just need someone who is moderately literate, and has good theatrical abilities, and voila: your second-rate product is "Islamic".

That is an affront to a great religion and a great tradition. Those who engage in this charade should be ashamed of themselves.

I strongly recommend the sadly funny cartoons by Tarek El-Diwani posted here. I would laugh harder if they were not so true


Blogger Mahmoud El-Gamal said...


No, I don't, for multiple reasons.

1. I no longer believe that there is anything inherently Islamic about any given contract. Now that I understand structured finance, I can see that any contract can contain forbidden riba and gharar, and any contract can be made devoid of those forbidden factors.

2. I was naive to assume that those involved in the industry will all have pure intentions and use the tranistionary period to move in the direction of more equity and less exploitative finance. In reality, I have discovered, even the so-called "Shari`a scholars" are cynical and money-motivated. I was telling one of them that my Ph.D advisor left academia and went to work for Wall Street, and his remark was that "there isn't much money in that".

As the cartoon in Tarik El-Diwani suggests, this car is definitely driving in the wrong direction.

1:14 PM  
Blogger Denis said...

Your remarks about the shuyukh industry, the affectation of knowledge through selective Arabic quotation, the pretence that an ijaza equals a degree from a respectable university and so on are much appreciated. I wish more Muslims would stand up and throw water on this pretentious and sometimes dangerous world of revert mashayikh. (Just 3 Arabic words... do they push me over the edge?)

6:52 PM  

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